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Secret of Mana Defied a Major RPG Trope: A Happy Ending

25 years ago, Secret of Mana played games with our hearts.

Analysis by Nadia Oxford, .

It's the 25th anniversary of Secret of Mana, an SNES action-RPG that's still important to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Secret of Mana marked my return to RPGs after several years of dormancy (the original Final Fantasy left sour taste in my mouth, but that's my fault for going into Squaresoft's primitive adventure directly after playing Dragon Quest III), which is one reason the game's special to me. I kind of dig RPGs now, and Secret of Mana is a big reason why.

Secret of Mana isn't a perfect game—though its soundtrack touches perfection outside the maddening Dwarf Town music—but I enjoy myself whenever I sate my annual itch to play through it again. Its simple sword-swinging mechanics are easy to appreciate in this age of complex 100-hour RPGs, but Secret of Mana's subversion of RPG stereotypes from the '80s and '90s are also interesting to look back on. Most notably, finishing the game nets you a melancholy ending instead of a happy wrap-up more suited for the fairy-tale themes most RPGs subscribed to during the era.

(Yeah, it's been 25 years, but why risk it. Ending spoilers for Secret of Mana follow!)

While I wouldn't necessarily call Secret of Mana a dark game, it undeniably has sombre moments and story scenarios that pair up well with Debbie Downer's iconic "womp-waaaaah!". The festivities kick off when Randi falls down a waterfall and is ordered by a ghost to pull a sword lodged in a stone. Randi does as the dead person orders, but he's not declared a King or a hero for his efforts. Instead, he's banished from his humble village for dislodging its charm against monster attacks. But it's not like anyone in the hamlet is very attached to him, anyway. That's the lot of an orphan.

In time, Randi makes friends with Primm, a young woman who blew off an arranged marriage to search for her missing boyfriend, Dyluck. An amnesiac little sprite named Popoi also joins the party early on, and their tricks and antics offer some comic relief that cut through Secret of Mana's serious moments—at first.

"I'm stronk boi."

See, as you get deeper into Secret of Mana, you notice happiness continually eludes its young heroes. Despite Primm's best efforts to find Dyluck, she's always a step behind him: The unlucky soldier is constantly shunted from bad guy to bad guy because he harbors a sealed-off dark power that's caught the attention of Secret of Mana's evil regime. When Dyluck does get a chance to see Primm again, it's for a scant few moments before he offs himself to prevent his body from being used as a vessel for a demon. Randi's quest to power-up the Mana Sword and find his missing mother concludes with his mother sacrificing her life force to restore said Sword. And Popoi regains their memory and returns to the hidden village they were washed away from, only to discover it's been razed by the Empire, its inhabitants slaughtered.

There's a popular "Demotivational Poster" that accurately sums up Secret of Mana's story: "Sometimes the journey of a thousand steps can end very, very badly." You can argue heroes have to make sacrifices to bring peace to the world, and Mana's heroes aren't any different. That's true, but Mana's conclusion has one more gut-punch in store for its players. Seconds before you're tasked with facing off against the rampaging Mana Beast that threatens to end all life on earth, Popoi reveals they won't survive the battle because if the Beast dies, all things related to Mana will disappear with it. That includes Sprites, a race tied closely to the planet's Mana life force.

Everyone lives in harmony with Mana, until they don't.

True to their word, Popoi dies. While the game's post-credits sequence suggests Popoi might be a ghost or a spirit who will cling to the ruins of their home village, the implications are clear: They'll never see their friends again.

But then, nobody gets a storybook ending when Secret of Mana wraps up. Randi's mother doesn't magically return. The burnt-out Mana Tree doesn't magically regrow. Dyluck doesn't pop back into existence with a befuddled "Gosh! What happened?" While there are smaller emotional rewards—Primm patching things up with her estranged father, for example, and Randi returning to his jerk hometown—the dead still sleep.

"And here I thought killing Mana's creations would make me a happier person."

Secret of Mana taught me games don't owe me a happy ending. Thinking back, that wasn't a bad lesson to learn before heading into the myriad "OOF" story moments delivered by Final Fantasy VI. Final Fantasy VI is a game about death and ruin, though. Secret of Mana is a lush, candy-colored adventure about a boy and his friends enjoying a journey together, and the game's cheery backdrop makes the heroes' heartbreak all the more poignant.

We've got dead parents, dead boyfriends, and a downer ending all piled on a bedrock of satisfying fights and epic music. No wonder Secret of Mana's still worth talking about 25 years later. I'll happily talk about it again 25 years from now, too. I have thoughts about every pixel of this odd action-RPG.

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for ericspratling56 #1 ericspratling56 15 days ago
    It's unfortunately an instance in which the rushed original Western translation nerfed a lot of the impact. "Wait, the sprite's going to die because... reasons?" Made it even more confusing by some of the dialogue backing up the ending shot's visual implication that he isn't actually dying ("I'm NOT gonna kick the bucket!") but just being stuck in some nebulous Mana realm.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #2 Funny_Colour_Blue 15 days ago
    ("I'm NOT gonna kick the bucket!") but just being stuck in some nebulous Mana realm.

    @ericspratling56 This is what I thought too! Like, he didn't die, just remained separated?...or something?

    Also, woa man, a 25th anniversary for Ecco AND Secret of Mana? 93' was a cool year for video games.

    8)
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  • Avatar for camchow #3 camchow 15 days ago
    Another gut punch right at the end, at least for me, was having to fight the Mana Beast itself. See as a kid I thought that was Flammie, all grown up and fully transformed into Mana Beast mode, in your quest to stop the Mana Fortress you end up taking your little buddy too close and awakening the primal need to protect the world from this Mana abusing techno obimantion. Poor Flammie goes berserk and will destroy everything unless you stop him yourself.

    ... but I guess that isn't what really happens? I've seen people say that's not really Flammie and it's just some other beast but idk, whatever, it'll always be my head cannon and that really makes the Secret of Mana ending even more tragic. You saved this weird dragon puppy and you have to Old Yeller the poor bastard in the end.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #4 MetManMas 15 days ago
    It should definitely be noted that Final Fantasy Adventure (née Seiken Densetsu 1, Adventures of Mana) also ends on a downer. During the course of the story Sumo is forced to mercy kill one of his best friends, Amanda, to save her brother Lester. His chocobo is injured so severely that it has to be turned into a cyborg. Marcie the robot sacrifices itself to save him from Dime Tower's destruction. And he doesn't get the girl, Fuji, because she has to become the new Mana Tree 'cuz her tree mom was destroyed.

    There was definitely a precedence for bittersweet endings in the Mana series.Edited 3 weeks ago by MetManMas
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  • Avatar for Daikaiju #5 Daikaiju 15 days ago
    Hey, he got a fuzzy dragon out of the deal. That's not too shabby.
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  • Avatar for ericspratling56 #6 ericspratling56 15 days ago
    @camchow Yeah, that's another one the old translation futzes up even more. When they first see the Mana Beast the heroes say something like "Isn't it a Flammie? I guess all Mana Beasts were once Flammies...."

    That's a bizarre explanation, without even factoring in how they've suddenly adopted "Flammie" as the name of the SPECIES rather than the name of their individual white dragon. Regardless, it can't be *their* dragon because IIRC that's how they ride to safety afterwards, but it's still weird.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #7 Vonlenska 15 days ago
    I misread the title as, "Secret of Mana Defined...A Happy Ending" at first and I was like whaaaaaat.

    I love how melancholy the game is, though. I replayed the original recently and another subversion (especially for 1993!) that jumped out at me is Primm setting out to rescue Dyluck instead of the other way around. That she doesn't succeed - that nobody in the game really accomplishes any of their goals, exactly - makes that stronger, I think, not weaker. Bittersweetness seems to be a common thread in a lot of classic RPGs; that's something I like about them.
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  • Avatar for Stepout #8 Stepout 15 days ago
    The beauty of the Crystal Forest combined with that music, I think the track is called A Wish, makes for one of my favorite areas in all of video games. Also, hands DOWN the best sleep jingle in all of the 16 bit era.
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  • Avatar for Wellman2nd #9 Wellman2nd 14 days ago
    @MetManMas Also spoiler he dies without ever raising his kid and as a ghost kicks off the whole thing. Now that I think about it maybe the downbeat endings are the real reason the Mana games have struggled outside of this one.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #10 pdubb 14 days ago
    After a co-worker introduced me to the TLC Strange Addiction show, the fact that the hero's mother was a tree makes me extremely uncomfortable.
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #11 nadiaoxford 14 days ago
    @ericspratling56 The game's iOS port cleans up a lot of the wonky translation! For years beforehand, we also had no idea why Thanatos was so interested in Dyluck in the first place. Turns out (as I mention here) he was born with some kind of dark power that was sealed at birth.
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  • Avatar for joegamer420 #12 joegamer420 14 days ago
    I guess they skipped the end where you fight and kill the mana dragon you raised
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  • Avatar for davedalrymple11 #13 davedalrymple11 14 days ago
    @Wellman2nd And the uncharacteristic lack of a tragic ending must be why Seiken Densetsu 3 never made it outside Japan. :)

    The game wasn't without tragedy, but the ending was reasonably optimistic. Same deal with "Legend of Mana."
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #14 MetManMas 14 days ago
    @davedalrymple11 Seiken Densetsu 3 wasn't released on the Super Nintendo because of technical issues. The game was buggy and the Super Famicom game barely fit on the cart as is.
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